By 1973 Ray Davies seemed ready to wash his hands entirely of The Kinks; that is to say, The Kinks of the late 60s through early 70s. Or maybe just popular rock music as a whole. The band’s 1970 album Lola versus Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Part One was a monster seller for the band and gave them some serious commercial cache. Their followup, the transcendent Muswell Hillbillies (1971) was an artistic and critical success, but it was a far statement from the prevailing musical sentiments of the day. Everybody’s In Show-Biz (1972) was cut from the same cloth as Muswell, but not as good (although still quite good) and generally much sloppier. What became increasingly evident with those albums was Ray’s predilection towards indulging whatever creative impulses struck his fancy. Rock music? Top of the Pops? Platinum records and huge commercial success? FEH! At this point The Kinks had been on both extremes of the sales spectrum, so at this point why not get both artsy and fartsy?
This of course resulted with the Preservation project. Initially Ray wanted to revisit the classic Village Green Preservation Society album, recycle some of the music and expand upon it with new songs. Wiser instincts prevailed and that album was left on its own as a singular piece of work. Instead, Ray used the Village Green as a setting, revisiting a few familiar characters and themes but creating a whole new theatrical work based on that entire milieu. The Village Green would set the stage for an epic battle between an evil, greedy capitalist crook named Flash and the self-righteous ultra-religious do-gooder Mr. Black. Ray himself would position himself as “The Tramp”, a narrator and voice of reason and longing between these two opposing forces.
Ray wrote a ton of material for the project. So much so, in fact, that the planned double-album turned into a triple-album, and Ray still wasn’t pleased with the end result. Meanwhile the record label — a surely crapping-in-their-pants RCA — was none too pleased with the ongoing delays of the release (and most likely with the quizzical nature of the material), insisting that something hit the shelves by late 1973. Ray compromised and split the album into two separate releases: the single album Preservation: ACT I and the double album Preservation: ACT II, released in late 1973 and mid 1974, respectively. It wasn’t even a logical break between acts; ACT I introduced the story’s characters and was structured more like a traditional album, whereas ACT II had the bulk of the narrative and was decidedly less musical and more theatrical.
Well! Three albums of material released over the span of six months! For Kinks faithful, this must have seemed like a mechaya! In reality, the project was a big commercial flop, the likes of which hadn’t been seen by the band in years. No singles from the album charted in any remotely significant manner, and the whole thing was generally regarded as a giant WTF moment in The Kinks’s recording career.
Preservation is a fascinating artifact, the type of ginormous mess only a band as fascinating as The Kinks could throw together. Over the course of both albums, there are indeed some really good songs and one absolutely great one. Most of the good stuff is in ACT I, which is the better of the two releases. In fact, on it’s own it’s a fairly good LP.
The largely instrumental “Morning Song” kicks off the album, as the lazy village wakes up to simple humming and strings, like the beginning to a gentle Disney animated film. OK. We’re setting a tone. Got it. “Daylight” is kind of a neat little tune, painting a lively picture of the serene village and its townspeople. The overlapping lines in the verses give the song a theatrical feel. It’s a good song, nothing deep, and definitely different.
The album’s so-called “lost masterpiece” comes up next, the sublime pop excellence of “Sweet Lady Genevieve”. How this fits into the entire Preservation project, I have no idea. It’s sung by Ray’s “Tramp” character, about a girl he once wronged in the past and longs for again. It’s a pretty great song. It has a fine tempo, catchy melodies, and for a moment we have a glimpse of the band’s pop greatness. If there’s anything wrong with “Sweet Lady Genevieve”, it’s only that it sets a false expectation for the entirety of the project. Nothing will ever be this good again on either album.
Things get kind of operatic with the forgettable “There’s A Change In The Weather”. The track has all the earmarks of early 70s rock opera production values, but it’s nothing much as a song. Basically we have the townspeople bemoaning something afoot and awry in their li’l hamlet. A better track is “Where Are They Now”, a piano-driven nostalgic ballad that remembered to be music first and storytelling later. The harder rocking “One of the Survivors” is another nostalgia piece, this time bringing back the character of Johnny Thunder from VGPS. This one evokes the feeling of 50s rock-and-roll, motorbikes, old-school teenage rebellion, all of that jazz. I could live without the “You can’t stop rock-n-roll” breakdown, but it’s overall an fun little rocker.
You know, so far the album isn’t bad. Certainly not as its reputation would lead you to believe.
“Cricket” is pure musical theater with echoes of Dixieland jazz from Muswell. Here the Vicar character is likening the struggle between Good and Evil, God and Satan, as a decidedly British affair involving a Cricket match. Whether or not you like the track depends entirely if this sort of dramatics and/or musical drama. It’s not a particularly great song, but it doesn’t offend either. I’m just on the positive side of neutral for this one. On the other hand, “Money & Corruption/I Am Your Man” is a particularly dated piece that will be even more polarizing. I like the acoustic feel of the first part of the song (Money & Corruption), but the wailing falsettos from some of the female backing vocals are entirely irritating. It has an interesting tone that’s somewhere between early 20th century folk and Celtic dance, covered with a 70s rock opera veneer. The second part of the song (I Am Your Man) is entirely less interesting. All plot development with Flash promising to cure all societal and financial ills, in a slow, lushly produced ballad. Not particularly horrible, but not very interesting either.
“Here Comes Flash” is a fun, fast paced, oddly sung, very rocking with a killer riff from Dave that really gives the song a dangerous and sinister vibe! Were those echoes of a Klezmer band I heard in the middle there? Nice. The song only works within the context of the theatrical presentation; on it’s own, “Here Comes Flash” is sort of dopey. But a fun sort of dopey. “Sitting In The Midday Sun” is this album’s answer — or homage — to VGPS’s “Down By The Riverside”, and it’s a soft, pretty, and memorable number. I love the production on it: the driving piano, lush harmonies and instrumentation, and Ray’s strong vocal performance.
The album ends with “Demolition”, in which Flash and his gang take over the Village Green, tear it down, and sell it off for Big Profits. Fun stuff! The song itself is mediocre and entirely rooted in the theatrical underpinnings of the project. You either buy it or you don’t. I think it ends the album on a sort of weak and unfinished note. It definitely feels like a filler track between “Sitting In The Midday Sun” and another song that should have served as a more powerful and stirring Act I finale. Alas.
Preservation: Act I gets unnecessarily criticized quite a bit. I will admit that initially I was not a fan, having only briefly skimmed it once and not liking it at all. Listening to it now, I find the album is no masterpiece but I definitely see its strengths. There are some quality songs here. Artistically, the work is inextricably linked to the much inferior Act II, and as such it drags the entirety of the project down in terms of overall quality. As music alone, it’s a good if still flawed album. Songs like “Sweet Lady Genevieve” and “Sitting In The Midday Sun” are definitely strong Kinks tunes, and I definitely enjoy “Daylight”, “Where Are They Now”, and “One of the Survivors”. “Here Comes Flash” and “Cricket” are OK, whereas I can live without “Morning Song”, “There’s A Change In The Weather”, most of “Money & Corruption/I Am Your Man”, and “Demolition”. As drama/theater, it’s uninteresting at best, annoying at worst. Ignoring the theatrics entirely, there’s still enough quality to merit a recommendation on Preservation: Act I. Definitely far from an essential Kinks album, but worthwhile for Kinks fans looking to branch out into some of the band’s lesser known but worthwhile material.
The two bonus tracks on this album include the “Preservation” single, which is a really dated piece of 70s material that spells out the overall plotline of Act I. Think of lots of electric piano and Ray’s overly-affected warbling vocal style, and that’s the kind of song you’re left with. You know, for a band that is often described as timeless in their music, “Preservation” is firmly rooted in 1973. It’s an OK song, but nothing special. The other bonus track is a single release of the album track “One of the Survivors”. Pretty unnecessary. The album track does just fine on its own.